Sunday, 31 December 2006

End of 2006

Things are not quite looking up. But it's not disastrous. In fact, the end of the year is looking more promising than some of our previous attempts at celebration. In 2002 we decided to go to the family pile in Northumberland. When we arrived there at 1o.30 pm on 31 December we discovered that neither Uncle Eff nor Aunty Dee had thought of getting in a celebration bottle. And Unwins was shut. By twenty-five past midnight we'd turned out the back of every cupboard and found one bottle of cheap wine that had soured, probably around 1973. So that wasn't a good year. The next one wasn't much better. In 2003 me and Dig hadn't spoken to each other since November in a relationship that resembled the reenactment of the Cold War. Then in 2004 Shark spent part of the winter in West Suffolk hospital unable to breathe without ventilation. And in 2005 I fell asleep on the sofa and missed it.

And now we're at the end of 2006. Things might get worse. Happy New Year.

Saturday, 30 December 2006

We are hospitable

Aunty Dee has arrived. All moving of furniture and books is temporarily suspended. Instead, we are doing hospitality.

First stop, remind her how delightful our children are by leaving her alone with them for two hours while I learn how to use the ipod that Dig gave me for Christmas. Aunty Dee is very good at being alone with the triplets because she is slightly deaf, so this helps her endure the volume. Unfortunately she's very bad at picking up the warnings of impending fights. She doesn't hear Tiger chanting 'I hate Shark' incessantly because Shark doesn't respond. Until Shark does respond, of course, by suddenly exploding and giving Tiger a massive slap around the head, at which point Tiger retaliates by howling and attacking Shark's fluffy unicorn with a pair of scissors. Shark now owns a unicorn with its horn cut off. Aunty Dee's sewing lesson didn't go too well after that. I suggested she tried a knitting lesson next.

Second stop, do hospitality by baking potatoes. This is not as simple as it sounds since the oven door fell off in 2004, and I like to think that baking potatoes with the addition of a towel and a bit of shatterproof glass shows real thought about someone else's dining pleasure. I have to manoevre the shatterproof glass with my foot, so the soles of my feet are routinely melted when we bake potatoes. Dig said he would mend this, of course, like the window, or the sockets, door handles, garage door, kitchen vent, downstairs toilet, leaking tap, running cistern, bathroom taps and kitchen plumbing.

Third stop on the hospitality run is the bedding. We now have a total of 18 duvets in the house since Dig raided the family pile at the time of the house clearance, and used them for padding the contents of the van so they didn't rattle around at 80 mph on the M1. So although we have enough duvets now, they're all different sizes and none of the bedding matches, which means that a king-size duvet inside a barely-single bed cover doesn't look too good. But to her credit she's not complained about the Thomas the Tank Engine pillowcase either.

So we're all set up, being hospitable, and not moving furniture, for New Year's Eve. I'd like to say we have been invited to a dozen parties, some of course would be close friends and others would be of the Melvyn Bragg-type celebrity-list. For a woman who once met Melvyn Bragg and spoke rubbish, this latter invitation isn't likely. And the fact that we don't have many friends and the trendy ones we did have deserted us when the triplets arrived, means we don't have any invitations from any friends either.

And a final word about that ipod. Probably along with everyone else in the UK, the idea that Gordon Brown carries the Arctic Monkeys about on his playlist is fooling nobody. He should just tell the world the truth, like me, and admit to Paul Simon. And I predict that carrying an ipod around will in time become as deeply unfashionable as wearing a baseball cap back to front. This is because middle-aged people like me are wandering around a post-Christmas Tesco all plugged into our ipods, listening to Paul Simon.

Friday, 29 December 2006

A bleak outlook

We're moving upstairs in six weeks, and already it's misery. It seemed like a good idea to move the bedrooms upstairs to the top flat, but now it seems like a very bad idea indeed. There are books all over the floor (again), freecycle bags stacked up in the hall, and an Edwardian hall stand from the North-East looking distinctly unsure of itself propped up against the wall. Dig now says the bookcase in the front room is 'unconvincing'. Well I am not moving it again.

And now I discover Aunty Dee is visiting tonight and she's staying for three days. I've had to piece this information together. Dig got a telephone call late last night. Aunty Dee wanted to know if he got her text. Got her text? Blimey. This must be the first time Aunty Dee has switched her mobile on. I didn't know she knew how to text. This is the woman who sat for two hours in a car park in Wallington wondering where we were. Walking round Wallington, having agreed to meet you in the car park two hours ago, that's where. 'We tried phoming you!' we cried, 'on your mobile!' 'I switched it off' she replied. 'I thought you were late.'

I'm in a pit of despair. The head cold, disturbed sleep for three nights, three neglected children, Dig who's locked himself away, a house that's trashed and I've done it myself, and Aunty Dee who's visiting, all sums up to an impending New Year that's looking decidedly bleak. Tomorrow can only get better.

Thursday, 28 December 2006

Alone with The Great Plan

Dig's no help at all. He's gone back to work, looking at commas. We probably had the last decent conversation in 2000. I expect he'll announce in March he's off to Singapore or wherever to give a talk on commas. The children aren't much more help, demanding paint while I'm balancing a chest of drawers one one hand and a leg while I'm crawling half way up the staircase. Now I'm wondering why I'm embarking on this Great Plan. I might even back out now. But I've moved the chest of drawers, alone, which took all afternoon and a lot of grunting. Being unable to breathe thanks to the head cold is not helping either.

To their credit the kids sorted their soft toy box this morning. I told them freecycle is sometimes a special place for poor starving orphans who need cuddly toys. Unfortunately they put the most expensive into the freecycle box. Including Old Lady who has innards full of animals that cost thirty quid from storysack. They decided to keep Evil Ted who has no nose and a nasty glint in its eye. I had him in the freecycle bag three times last year and each time they rescued him. I think they've equipped him with radar. So I waited till they'd gone and dragged Old Lady out and put Evil Ted in.

This afternoon I got them busy sending letters to dragons or fairies or some such while I cleared their shelves with a rubbish bag. Last time Squirrel found me. 'Mummy's throwing away our art!' she cried. Cue screaming, weeping, and six little hands in my rubbish bag. Out of the rubbish bag came bits of inexplicable paper with scribble, knobs of clay that are supposed to be Celtic cauldrons, and twisted up pipe-cleaners with their wiggly eyes hanging off. And back onto the shelves went the art treasures.

So we reach the end of the day with bags of toys, including Evil Ted in a pillowcase, waiting for a freecycler who says her friend's house just burned down. A chest of drawers without one castor is propped up in a front room that's rapidly becoming a bedroom. Tomorrow out go old clothes, and it's the end for books about diggers having fun in puddles.

The end of the year reviews are starting to pour in through the letterbox about the profound impacts made upon our culture by Bono and Camilla Parker Bowles. I bet they couldn't single-handedly drag furniture upstairs with a cold, clear 12 shelves, pack 4 freecycle bags, cook lunch for Dig and triplets, and still be on hand to wipe Squirrel's bottom.

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Too much stuff

Apparently, the sales are on. No, people, we all have too much STUFF. And all day long I've been moving it. Dig's scarpered to the office and locked the door. Squirrel's detected something going on and has started piling her treasures under her chair in the kitchen. By evening there's a chair mounted on top of a pile of Squirrel Stuff. The only lights in this dark day are Shark and Tiger. Chasing each other around the house means they haven't noticed what's going on. 'Can you see I'm busy?' I shout, at half-past midday, dressed in my pyjamas, pulling a double mattress to the front room upstairs, in response to an irritating question about whether I can attend to Squirrel's bottom. 'She has my parrot!' screams Tiger, chasing Shark down the stairs.

I am attempting, without help, to bring about The Great Plan. We live in a Victorian house divided into flats on three floors. We own the flat on the top floor, and we own the flats on the ground floor. We live on the ground floor and usually rent out the top floor. But not any longer. We're moving upstairs. But only for night-times. During the day, we'll be on the ground floor and have conventional bedrooms upstairs, like everyone else. Only they'll be in different flats. This is going to be interesting, this split-level living. I think we're still in dispute with the council who say we can't live in two ground floor flats simultaneously. 'I sleep in one flat and shower in another' I tell the council. 'Not possible' they answer. Do they need to catch up.

The only troubling bit of all this planning is that we don't own the flats on the middle floor, although we've tried to. The middle floor is where Mr Pod and Pastry live. Mr Pod's pushed off to Australia to watch the cricket, and Pastry's gone north. Apart from us, the house is empty. It's an ideal time to drag beds up and down the stairs, shout and crash around, rearrange the furniture, pile boxes against the front door and generally create mayhem. Only trouble is, it's only me doing it.

By evening, I've moved a double bed to the upstairs front room and cleared out some of the childrens toys to their new bedrooms. I've decided they have too much stuff. Tomorrow, I'm hitting the freecycle button. If Shark and Tiger don't notice the movement of beds and bookcases, I wonder if they'll notice their baby toys in plastic sacks in the hall?

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

The knickers started it

I'm wearing Dig's underpants. This is all due to a laundry crisis. No laundry, no knickers. I'm driven to shout, 'This house is a mess! Nothing gets done! Nobody does anything!' while pointing at the wooden chest where the laundry waits its turn. The children hide and Dig slinks off. As far as I can remember he has never put the laundry on in nearly 20 years. But it's not all bad. I've learned that temper tantrums of this variety are A Good Thing, because I can set about Doing Some Thing and no-one can complain. First thing to do is the laundry. And the second, rearrange the furniture.

In preparation for any household work of any type, I have to take an anti-allergy tablet. Without it I will need two packs of Tesco value tissues. Then, the knickers go in the wash. This is progress and already I'm feeling better. Next, I clear the children out of the front room. They're easily lured off to the kitchen with craft paper and a pair of scissors. Then I clear the bookshelves in the front room and pull it away from the wall. Thank goodness for the Benadryl. Behind it there's dust an inch thick. The wall hasn't seen the light of day for 15 years and the spiders are hanging about there like the delinquents in the arcade.

Out goes the Habitat pine bookcase and in comes the heirloom mahogany bookcase from the garage. We brought this back from Northumberland in last week's house clearance. It has a coating of viynal wallpaper, which we need to peel away otherwise we will look like 1960s retro-chic-disaster. On the plus side, that coating probably saved it from the clutches of Evangelical Vee. Dig disappears to B & Q. Two hours later he's back with a steam cleaner that he sets off blowing high temperature steam all over the house, then says it's difficult to hold and he doesn't know how to turn it off anyway, so passes it over and sits on the sofa reading the instructions. Apart from a few small scalding burns I handle it quite well.

By evening we have two empty bookcase in the front room, one steam-cleaned and the other blocking the traffic way. There is a Ben Nevis pile of books, and there's craft paper all over the kitchen floor. Left unattended for the afternoon, the kids have also moved off like a demolition crew to trash their room. The house now resembles the local tip from front to back. This prompts a big discussion. Me and Dig do a lot of walking about which we call 'Looking at the Spaces and Thinking'. Actually there aren't any spaces left to walk in, which is when we do this thinking most. By midnight we've talked ourselves into it. We're setting ourselves a goal of the children's seventh birthday, in six weeks time, to move all the bedrooms round, make a schoolroom happen, regain adult control of the front room, rip out all the bathrooms, create a toy room and wrestle Shark's room from her to create a room that's just crying out for a creative au pair fluent in three languages who can cope with home educated triplets.

Well in truth I can't really regret the underwear that started it all. Thanks to giving birth and middle age development of fat rolls, Dig's underpants feel quite comfortable. So I'm hiding those in my knicker drawer.

Monday, 25 December 2006

Christmas day

Last night Shark said she felt a bit better, and she looked it too, after sleeping all afternoon on the sofa. So we decide to take up an invitation at The Hat's for a Christmas Eve hello. When we get there, Moss, husband to The Hat, opens the door just enough for him to peek out. 'Cat!' he whispers. 'Is there a cat on the ground?' We all look at our feet. No cat. Just as well. The kids are terrified of cats. The door opens a little wider. Moss blocks the entrance, holding a walking stick the wrong way round, like a golf club. He looks like a man who's confused. The Hat appears. 'Cat?' she whispers. 'Not there!' whispers Moss. 'Quick!' she says, 'Get in quick!' We're all ushered in. 'What are you going to do with the stick?' I ask. I know it's a foolish question. 'Strike the cat!' shouts Moss, and slams the door behind us. 'It's vicious!' whispers The Hat. This isn't going to do any good for the cat phobia. The Hat introduces an enormous smiling tabby lolling in front of the fire, stretching out its claws in the air, and invites the children to stroke it.

We stay just an hour; Tiger's looking queasy, so we leave before the inevitable. I supply her with a recycling bag on the way home. She vomits the moment we get into the hall. It sprays down the back of Squirrel's leg. Only three hours left of Christmas Eve, I've yet to wrap the presents, and I'm back on my hands and knees cleaning up sick.

This morning we all sleep in till 9. The kids have cracked it. 'It's from the charity shop!' squeals Shark. All is well until the unicorn's head on a stick. It's from The Hat who doesn't know that these things are best avoided. The first fighting starts and we plan a rota of 30 minutes each for galloping round the house. Dig gives me an ipod. This is fab. I render it completely unusable in two seconds by converting the menu to Chinese. I pass it back to Dig for resetting purposes.

Then there's baked potatoes for lunch. This is a tradition here of sorts, and means there's virtually no cooking done at all except for the pudding which Dig ceremoniously sets on fire at tea-time. This bit seems to cause great hilarity amongst the kids. I insist Dig pours over lots and lots of brandy to keep the laughter flowing.

Unfortunately the brandy pudding brings out the fighting side. The kids refuse to get in the bath. And with triplets, we're always outnumbered. They refuse to get into bed. They refuse to go to sleep. By 10pm, Shark's wound herself up into a screaming fit. It goes on till 10.30. By now she has so much mucus flying I make an assessment whether she's going to have breathing difficulties before opening another bottle. If she needs oxygen, I have to drive her to the Emergency Doctors in town.

Now we're half way done. Apart from the sick there's just a streaming cold, an eye infection, and a toothbrush down the toilet to mar the day. Can we survive Boxing Day without the same?

Sunday, 24 December 2006

Bad day

I've electrocuted myself. I knew things were going too well. So now it's back to normal. There's this plug, at ankle height, and it's wiggled free. And I stuck a metal pan lid in it. I was holding the lid at the time, naturally. I think there must be better ways of checking whether the trip works.

So I ring up Dig. He's taken Shark off to Waitrose to get the booze. Fortunately he is concerned, and asks if I have any burn marks, so there is hope for our marriage. He says he was just getting back in the car to come home. Shark says she's going to be sick. He's tried to persuade her to stay in Waitrose, but no, she wants to be sick in the car. Twenty minutes later she staggers in, is sick in spectacular fashion into Doctor Dig's home-made sick bucket, which is a plastic bag inside a Waitrose wine box, and then she passes out on the sofa. It'll all stand her in good stead for the teenage years.

But it's back to a normal Christmas for us: Dig eating baked beans on his own for Christmas dinner while I have gastroenteritus downstairs; the two weeks we live in a hotel above a bus station in KL with a near-miss on Dengue Fever, and then last year: Squirrel comes down with chickenpox after getting out of bed, Shark and Tiger follow. So the electrocution and vomiting on Christmas Eve are par for the course, really.

And I still have the food thing to crack. I'm aiming for Tesco one hour before it closes in a spirit of enterprise. I could argue that I've been in training all year. It'll be 10p time around 3.15 when everything fresh, and stale, is marked down. I have strategies for this, depending on who's doing the mark-down job. With Yasser, it's the eagle approach: I hide behind pillars then jump out and swoop down on the 10p trolley and shovel 15 boxes of organic tomatoes in my basket. With Laura, it's the limpet: I stick to her, monopolising her time and her ticket machine, talking about how the children love runner beans and putting in my order for the crate. And if no-one's there but the pensioners, I do a lot of bending down, as I find that the enormous amount of room that my bottom takes up clears a wide circulating space around me which allows me to get out my elbows and hit the lower shelves for the raspberries.

I know we're not alone though. Pastry made a final appearance to say good bye and give us all a card, and she said her van had been broken into while it was outside and a suitcase of clothes and jewellery stolen. Hey, it's Christmas in our town, and the police are par for the course too.

Now think of us, and your Christmas worries won't seem half so bad. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, 23 December 2006


The Presents are next. So I go shopping. I have two hours in the charity shops, so need the op shops close together. I'm heading to the part of town which is so run down, it's dropped off the map. It's the sort of place where the public toilets aren't safe. But it has five charity shops all in a row. When I get there I notice Oxfam's closed down. They're probably a bit up-market for here.

I have triplets to make magic for, and it's not easy. They're not Christian, so God's out of the picture. They don't believe in Santa either, so we can forget all that stuff about sherry and mince pies. They've worked out that the Mythicals bring them presents. The Mythicals are fairies, unicorns, and firebirds, and they lived before the dinosaurs, apparently. The kids haven't yet connected the sight of mother staggering through the house holding bags from the charity shops with the appearance of a few second-hand presents two days later, each badly wrapped in Christmas paper they've probably seen before.

My plan this year is to aim for special interests. They're all aged 6. And they're all home educated. Shark's crazy about life underwater and wants to be a marine biologist in her day job and a chef at night. Tiger looks to me like a good engineer, or designer. The first thing she did this morning was to make a bi-plane out of cardboard. She intends to experiment with Pegasus in it later. Squirrel is into fairies big time, and dresses up as one whenever she can. She says she's made a Christmas fairy wish, but she won't tell me what it is. I've tried five times now, so it looks like she's going to be disappointed.

In the first shop I hit the jackpot for Shark. A beanie fish called Lips. Tiger would be happy with a book on how to make action toys for 35p, but I put it back, because I can detect tears by instruction 12. It would be the origami dolphin all over again, and the memory's still fresh. Squirrel likes birds, so I buy her a cuddly parrot with a strange quiff on its head, like a cockatoo. She'll examine that quiff later and say that it doesn't look like any bird she knows and we can get out all the encyclopeadias to try and identify it, which we won't be able to do. In Shop 2, my enthusiasm suddenly deserts me. I leave with a blue unicorn for Tiger. In Shop 3 I find a video of James and the Giant Peach and in Shop 4 a book about animals around the world. So that's probably it, along with a box of craft items tucked away downstairs. For any spare friends and relatives knocking about we'll make bookmarks using leaves, paints, and a laminator machine. This is going well. We have two out of the three things to do, done. Tomorrow, The Food. Life's never been this straightforward.

Friday, 22 December 2006

Full house

Dig says it's Christmas. We look at the calendar and plan. Today's priority is to tidy things up. And then put up the Christmas decorations. The Hat is coming to tea. The Hat has time management issues. She says she's coming at 3.30. I pencil her in for 6pm. Which leaves all day to put the boxes we brought down from Northumberland yesterday, one on top of another, and call it a fashionable storage solution.

I'm starting to unload bits from the car and stack them up in the hall, when Pastry appears. She's moving out today, she says. We laugh, because we're moving in, of sorts, and we're meeting in the middle. Pastry's been alright, and I like her. She lives upstairs, and has tolerated our screaming, running up and down the stairs, and our theatrical 'Shushing' outside Mr Pod's door. She's had children, and they've all grown up and gone, so she knows what it's like. And she's been very warm about our home education, even though she teaches in a school. She reckons home ed is A Good Thing, and she's interested in the art projects the children have been doing. She looks a bit sad that the children are putting up the decorations. It rather looks like they're celebrating the fact that she's going.

Dig probably has a different view. Last night, he slips out of our home flat to the office flat. Only thing was, it's 1am and he was completely naked. He worries about things, like email, and books, and papers, and goes to check up on them at odd hours. When he comes out of the office, he locks the office door behind him, standing in the hall in the dark. Then the light goes on. Pastry's coming downstairs with boxes to pile up, ready for the off. Now anyone coming down the stairs can see into the hall, where Dig is standing, locked out of one flat, and too far to cross to the other flat without being seen. Dig unlocks the office door fast and spends the next half hour hiding, naked, in the dark and cold of his unheated office, peering through the keyhole for his chance to slip back into home flat. If he makes a sound, Pastry will think he's spying on her, which he is. God forbid she'll call the police. We often seem to have the police. I blame next door.

By 6pm Pastry's trying to lever open the double doors that serve as our big front doors so she can get the sofa out, which is stuck at an odd angle. We rarely open out the double doors and normally just open one to get in and out. Opening the other is a pain; the parting gift of Git upstairs when he vacated his flat was to put the front door handles on the wrong way round, so they turn counter-intuitively. Pastry's huffing and puffing there, with the help of a man with a van and a couple of teenagers lolling at the gate, when The Hat arrives to squeeze past it all and straight into our kitchen, shouting 'Cooee!'. This causes mayhem. The kids have been negotiating for two hours about who's going to answer when she buzzes at the front door. I've been warning them there won't be a front door, there'll be a sofa, and it doesn't have a buzzer, but it doesn't make any difference. The Hat has to go out again, crouch under the sofa and buzz at the open door so the kids can worm their way through the removals to not open anything. It seems to make them happy and keeps everyone quiet.

The children have decorated the tree in their room. The Hat makes all the right noises and says how beautiful it is. It is a complete mess. They've decorated it with crayons and bits of string. I have to persuade them to use the baubles. At least this year I've secretly thrown away the shuttlecocks they used to decorate it with last year.

Amazingly, we've done some cooking for The Hat this afternoon. We started off making filo baskets filled with fruit, and Dig was sent off to the co-op with Squirrel to buy the pastry. I didn't know he'd bought frozen until Squirrel gets it out the freezer. It takes three hours to defrost. We have 40 minutes. With a quick change of plan we make a cake with Shark's love-heart cake tin and pile the cooked fruit on that. The Hat makes all the right noises. She's welcome anytime.

By evening, the sofa's gone, with all Pastry's belongings, to a van outside. The Hat has gone too, and given the kids advent calenders. I lie about the numbers, and say it's the sort of calender that covers Christmas and New Year, so we open Window 1, and everyone's happy.

We get a phone call late on from Aunty Dee, saying that she and Uncle Eff stayed up all night clearing his attic floor, and she got Brake, who lives on the moors, to come down with his trailer to take all the stuff she'd dragged out of our pile to Morpeth. Brake's aged 86, is colour blind, and paints all his furniture orange. She's slightly regretful that he couldn't take the stone garden seat. I pour an extra drink for this. Uncle Eff and Dee have had nine months to plan and have left it all to the last nine hours. So it's been a more successful day than most, and we can even tick the first box, The Decorations, on Dig's plan to have a happy family Christmas.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Endings and beginnings

Yesterday, I saw Uncle Eff for the last time. Hope so. He materialised just as Dig arrived with the take-away curries and nan breads. We 'd set up house in the front room, put the kids on their fold away plastic garden furniture and cleared off the ancient dining table Eff's taking with him. Over dinner, Dig tells Eff that contracts get exchanged in less than 48 hours so anything left in the attic is his problem. Uncle Eff doesn't answer. It's difficult having a one-sided conversation for nearly 15 years, and thank God it's nearly over. The meal didn't last too long. The kids managed to knock all their food off their garden furniture at least three times, so I spent most of our last night in the family pile on my hands and knees sweeping up basmati rice soaked in orange juice. This morning there's an orange coloured pool and a funny smell coming from the carpet. I hope the Scrimvers think it's deliberate.

The final runs to the tip were this morning. Dig's in a panic already because the van's due back at 5pm tonight and it's a five hour journey. The bed goes, without dignity, followed by the Swivel King that no-one wanted, even though everyone's had such a good time on it. The fridge goes too. Somewhere in England, a fridge historian will be kicking themselves. Aunty Dee has a mountain of stuff she's dragged out of our pile for the tip, and it's all stacked up, back in the hall. It's her problem now, I reckon. While Dig's out I take a last peek at Uncle Eff's attic rooms. The floor is strewn with stuff: old photographs, papers, faded prints in broken wooden frames, computer printers, glass vases, tin boxes, cables, plastic bags with receipts inside. I pick up one piece of paper: it's the receipt from Bainbridges for the blue carpet that runs up the stairs. It's come away from the grippers and slides dangerously about underneath your feet on the bottom three steps. The receipt dates from 1953. I bet Uncle Eff could have put his hands on that receipt in under five minutes, if I'd ever felt the need to ask him.

We barely have time to wave goodbye to the house about midday. Dig's already gone red in the face, so the prognosis isn't good. And I'm right. The journey home turns out to be probably the worst I've ever taken. It's so raw that I'm going to have to write about it later, or when I'm sober.

By the end of it, I'm having to do the M1 at 90 with Tiger chanting 'I hate Mummy'. We get back at 4.55. Dig is now in full panic. We have five minutes to unload, in the dark, and drive the van back to the hire company. Fortunately Dig's had a rare bit of far sighted planning and has emptied the garage of the rusting two-seater that's a remnant of our pre-kids years. That's now falling apart at the bottom of the garden, but has left garage space enough to throw into it the great mahogany bookcase, the Edwardian hall stand, the doll's house and a pile of desirable books we managed to keep from Evangelical Vee by hiding them under the beds. It all takes 20 minutes.

By the time Dig screeches off round the corner without his lights on, I'm exhausted and can't believe the whole ordeal is over. My first action is to go inside, step over Tiger, now lying on the floor in a full blown screaming fit, and put into the bin a pair of torn trousers with 50 year old dirt crawling about them. I've worn the same clothes for three days and most nights, knickers, socks, the lot, while clearing out the house, and I never want to see them again.

Then in walks Dig. He's looking sheepish. 'What date is it?' he asks. I know it. He's booked the van for four days, not three. And we actually have another 24 hours to drive back from Northumberland. In fact we have a leisurely 23 hours 35 minutes, in which we could drive back from Northumberland, park the van in eight different positions, unload it while we drink coffee, and take a photo of it, in the daylight, if we wish, just for the fun of it and the family album. As if I could forget.

Dig takes it off anyway, a bit slower this time. We could leave it outside overnight, but the local dodger would break in. While Dig's gone, I go for a shower. And when I get back, I'm sorting out Tiger, opening the second bottle of the day, and paying some attention to the kids. And then I want a good sleep, because tomorrow's another beginning. And I need a plan for the next event on my horizon: How To Get Past Christmas While Living With This Family.

Wednesday, 20 December 2006

The final day

By 8am, Dig is sitting in the car outside the tip. He's the first customer on opening time. No-one in a yellow jacket helps out. So by 9am our schedule's already delayed. Aunty Dee's stirring but she'll quicken up: I've shouted that Doubtful George is coming with a screwdriver for her bed at 10am. When she gets downstairs she heads off immediately for the garage. As Dig is bundling boxes into the car for the next tip delivery, she's pulling them open, investigating the contents, doing a lot of gasping and a making of declarations. She's wrestled the hostess trolley out and is struggling to make a case for a plastic garden table. Aunty Dee shouts 'You're going too fast!' Dig answers 'We're not going fast enough!' Clearly a small domestic difference is about to emerge. Fortunately Doubtful George arrives with his Clio to unscrew the bed, so I get him upstairs quick before he changes his mind.

When we emerge with the bed, Dig and Aunty Dee have gone; Aunty Dee no doubt still rumaging in the car looking for the OS map of Hexham that someone's turned into a tea tray with the addition of a bit of hardboard and a strip of plastic.

I've just seen Doubtful George off with the mattress scraping along the road from the back of his car when the Scrimvers arrive. I don't recognise them. 'I'm Nigel' he says, without smiling. 'Have you come for the computer desk?' I ask hopefully. He looks blank. Arabella appears, or rather I smell the Eau Dior first. Cordelia follows glumly. Only daughter aged eight and having to slum it in the local primary school after being dragged out of private. It clicks. The revolting Scrimvers.

The sale started about 9 months ago. The crack in the wall had been there for five years and appeared at the same time the neighbours propped up their house with concrete. 'It's heave' said Dig. 'It's subsidence' said the Scrimvers. Next, 270 days with men walking up and down stairs to look at the crack. It generates 182 telephone calls, 89 letters, 5 reports and finally, some bloke with a hat on, saying 'It's heave.' The Scrimvers demand 10k off the price; then 7k, then 12k, then 8k, then 20k. Just as we're about to leave for Aus, Dig caves in and takes 5k off the price. I still don't know on what basis. One thing, I'm not about to be nice. 'I'm busy' I say. 'Has Eff told you we'd like to buy your chest of drawers?' says Nigel. First I could tell him I haven't spoken to Eff for five years, since I spent the first 15 trying to make a conversation with him and it clearly wasn't going to get anywhere. Second I'm tempted to say, 'Yeah, it costs five thousand pounds.' But I try to be polite, and say 'No. It's gone. I'm busy.' 'Oh' says Nigel. 'I did call Eff', he starts. So I say 'I don't care. I'm busy and right now I am Godzilla in charge of a children's tea party, so it's gone.' I'm not sure why Godzilla, but it does the trick and he scarpers, towing Arabella and Cordelia behind him.

And I should just mention that computer desk. Because Uncle Eff lives in a universe which is different from anywhere I've ever lived, when he says 'the desk' it means the desk with a computer on, and he's not taking it with him. And when he says 'the computer desk' he means the desk which does not have a computer on it, and he is taking it with him. Dig arrives, sees two desks, one with a computer on it, one without a computer on it, and makes the obvious connections. So I put Uncle Eff's computer desk up for freecycle, only it's the wrong desk. I'm not repentant.

By night, we've cleared all we can in the part of the house that's ours, so we're all sorted for exchange of contracts later this week. Our rooms are empty, the kids are sleeping on air beds and our bed goes to the tip in the morning. God knows what's still in the attic. We're off tomorrow back home with a white van and a car filled with the stuff that's not been freecycled, tipped, or set on fire by Uncle Eff and Biker Bill when we weren't here to know. The first we knew of that episode was when the Scrimvers wanted 12k off and the garden restocked after he'd burned down the apple tree.

And I guess the last word today should go to Evangelical Vee. When we bought Vee and Aunty Dee out of the family pile, and took over the ownership alongside Uncle Eff, Vee's interests in the house were finished. Unfortunately she retained her key. Periodically she lets herself in and removes items of furniture she fancies. The first item to go missing was the only item of value in the house: a Regency mirror, worth a thousand despite a crack on one side. Next was the revolving bookcase. Then it became a new surprise each time we came up. Last time the gilt shelves on the landing had been unscrewed. This time the elegant table in the front room had gone, along with kitchen shelving. I reflect that thanks to her and Freecycle Elly, we probably had less to dispose of in the end. It's a pity though that she's not an Evangelical Christian with a special interest in fridges.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Freecycle heaven

By midday I have got rid of the teletubbies, a bag of toys, the sofa, and a car seat smeared with dried baby sick. The sick must be five years old now, and I'm impressed by its staying power. I've changed my mind about the schlumpher, and am keeping it. A man called Brian is upstairs destroying Uncle Eff's wardrobe with an axe and Brian's wife, Linda, is spinning round on the Swivel King chair shouting 'Push me again!' to the children. I'm offering Linda a dash of Aunty Dee's whisky in her coffee, so she'll take the Swivel King along with the other three armchairs she's having.

And Uncle Eff, of course, has legged it. I'm so angry about that, all I can do is snort. He returns about lunchtime and pokes his nose into a saucepan. He'll be lucky. Brian and Linda decided that although they didn't want the Swivel King they had so much fun they'd dismantle the oven for us and drop it off at the tip. The only thing in the saucepan is a foam mouse that squeaks, which the children want to take back. I'm hiding it so they don't find it. And I'm not about to offer food to Uncle Eff in any shape or form, although a microwaved foam mouse that squeaks comes pretty close to what he'd get. Dig becomes very explicit about how many bags Uncle Eff could take to the tip now. Uncle Eff sidles out the door. We break into his bedroom. We dismantle his bed and take it to the tip. Basically, he asked for it.

The rest of us work hard all afternoon: Aunty Dee is on child duty and pile sorting. She's up in the attic with a roll of rubble sacks to sort out Uncle Eff's piles and the kids have instructions that if someone needs a hospital they call Aunty in the attic. They're busy trashing their room. Shark tells me that she's enjoying it. Tiger is mostly weeping, and Squirrel is pushing anything she can lay her hands on into sacks to take home. I'm slipping them down to the bins.

By evening we are shattered and filthy and already sick of eating from the chippy. No-one has spotted Uncle Eff, and word has it that he's hiding out in Prudhoe. I think it's a jolly good thing because I might just become brutally honest again. Aunty Dee is sorting out the bath routine. At 10pm I find her lying on the bathroom floor with a glass of red wine explaining why baths exist. The children, all in the bath together, are enthralled.

And now we can look forward to tomorrow. Freecycle Elly is coming back on her third visit for 25 bags of books, the travel cots, and the bookcase. She's enjoying this hugely. I've been on and off the freecycle list for hours, and presently am in centimeter debate with Doubtful George who's not sure if he can take the single bed. I'm trying to lure him over here and offer to throw in a chest of drawers and help with the loading and a screwdriver.

The last remaining problems then are the garage full of stuff scheduled for half-hourly runs for the tip and the clothes I'm wearing. I regret that this morning I tipped into the 'Clothes? Yes Please!' recycling bin all spare clothes including the ones I might have worn tomorrow. There's also the fridge problem. The fridge dates from 1960, is still plugged in, and is probably responsible for the destruction of a couple of glaciers. I've been hunting for a fridge historian on freecycle, and regret not trying ebay.

When Aunty Dee discovers we've stocked the overnight tip pile in the garage, her jaw drops. She says that Uncle Eff's Big Plan to clear his part of the house in time for exchange of contracts this week is to put his stuff in the garage, and collect it next month. She says she thought she'd talked him out of that plan, but she'd better check in the morning where some of the treasures actually are. What an opportunity. I set the alarm for 6 am.

Monday, 18 December 2006

Go North

The journey to Northumberland goes quite well. I can't quite believe it but the code for the radio is found, the FM transmitter works, the portable CD player has batteries inside, and the Roald Dahl CDs are to hand. Most astonishingly, the kids are good natured. We stop at Woolley Edge service station where they scream in the toilets, run about, look under the doors, and pretend to be kookaburras (so apologies if you were in the loo at that time). And when we get to our remote pile in Northumberland, Dig is there, waiting for us, with his white van. So everything is perfect.

And then I see the house. This is Dig's family home for over fifty years. And in that fifty years it's seen birth, marriages, and deaths, and been involved in a couple of conceptions. Dig and his brother, who we call Uncle Eff, inherited the house with their sisters, Dee and Vee, after Mummy G died. Vee wanted to sell the house immediately; Uncle Eff looked like a man who'd been in a car crash. He'd lived in the attic for over fifty years and we thought it a bit unkind if he was shunted off for Vee's financial gain. So Dig came up with a plan. Buy Dee and Vee out with a little help from a man in a bowler hat. Push Vee off with a pile of money. Keep the house in the family. And give Uncle Eff a bit of time to discover what he wanted to do.

We discovered that what Uncle Eff really wanted to do was come out the attic, find a boyfriend, and announce at 1 am that he was going to the massage parlour, so please don't bolt the door. This was fine by us, until he moved the boyfriend in. Now this was tricky. The house is on three storeys; the ground floor is split up between us; on one side is Uncle Eff's parlour where he keeps his 17 chairs, and on the other are our family rooms where we keep a blow-up Ikea schlumpher, treated like a trampoline. The middle floor is ours, for our delightful growing family, and the top storey, the attic rooms, are Uncle Eff's, because they always have been. But then the boyfriend moved in on our territory. We didn't discover this until we arrived one night at midnight, exhausted from the long drive, longing for sleep, and discovered a hairy biker, dressed in leather and wearing a provocative pose, pinned to our bedroom wall. The house was drenched in smoke, the ladders were back in our schlumphing room, something horrible had happened in the kitchen, and then there's Uncle Eff, suggesting we might have told him we were coming. To us it rather looks like we are paying an enormous mortgage for biker boyfriend to live in the pile and then we have to ask for permission to come and visit. The 'For Sale' sign went up that weekend.

So this is what we have twenty-four hours to clear out, ready for exchange of contracts: Uncle Eff's piles and peelings from living in the attic for half his life, the detritus of Edwardian furniture accumulated over the family years, a collection of family growing-up items from baby seats to Sindy dolls, and a blow-up Ikea schlumpher. I have a list of freecyclers and their telephone numbers. Tomorrow I am a woman of purpose.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Clearing the house

Dig gets off to the airport today in good time. Not like the day he was flying to Thailand but muddled up the timings and discovered at 4pm that his flight was taking off at 8pm and not 11pm as he'd thought. Cue panic. The check-in time was 6pm and security took three hours. We bundled the kids in the car within 10 minutes, which was an achievement in itself because normally that alone takes an hour. No-one was wearing shoes, knickers, or had coats, but I reasoned that if the car broke down the RAC would have us as priority thanks to the screams that would be happening in the background. We got stuck on the M25. The kids call it slow hour and fill in the time by punching each other and crying. I call it misery. I thought Dig was going to have a heart attack that day. I really thought the end had come. I reckoned that if he survived I should get the information out of him about how to charge up the car's battery, because it's always going flat, and Dig's always charging it up. I don't know which way the wires go on and I don't want to call the RAC out for that in case they put up my premiums. Anyway, he did get the flight, I'm not sure how. He's been doing a lot of international gigs this last year and he's in the posh class with BA, so they frisked his shoes in a special queue for fast people and he just made it all, this time without his name being called over the tannoy.

While Dig does the international work, I do the domestic. I've been freecycling again. Today I'm aiming to get rid of the sofa, three armchairs, four dining chairs, a single bed, a chest of drawers, three teletubby backpacks, boxes of books, a pile of Postman Pat jigsaws with his face scribbled out (that was me), a standard lamp, a bookcase, a computer desk and the fridge. I'll also add Uncle Eff's wardrobe, so if his clothes are still in it, tough luck.

This is all in preparation for the great Northumberland house clearance. None of the furniture's mine, so I can dispose of it all free from the nostalgic poetry of fond rememberances of knarled hands on wooden veneers. And I'm doing it all remotely too, so I can't describe the stains, the bits sliced off, the chunks chipped out, or the unfortunate accidents that have resulted in the loss of a leg. I get lots of takers, and am highly pleased. I'm starting to look forward to going up there.

I have no idea what the kids are getting up these days. Since we got back they seem to be sleeping a lot and playing a lot and fighting a lot, so I suppose they're normal. I'll get back to the home education when things calm down a bit. We'll do a project on Edward I. I'm already worrying about the demise of Edward II, but I guess I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Saturday, 16 December 2006

Change of plan

Much work on the phone now as Dig starts changing all his travel plans, intermittently locking himself in the downstairs toilet and thrashing around with the plumbing. He's off to Scotland to do a gig and the original plan was to go up and return by plane. That's all changed. He dumps the return flight ticket home and books a train seat instead to Newcastle, where he'll pick up a white van. He'll drive the white van to the family pile which has to be cleared out so the revolting Scrimvers can stride about their new property, pulling up the carpets and complaining about the cracks in the wall. I think we planned for a longer time gap than this, coming back from Aus, but it's now or never, thanks to a failure of time management and Dig's spirit of meanness about the hire charges.

There is one bit of all this new planning I don't like. I have to drive alone to Northumberland with the three kids in the back of the car. It's a five hour journey. And we cannot find the code for the radio. No code, no radio, no means for the FM transmitter to transmit the portable CD player through the radio to play the ten Roald Dahl CDs I bought cheap on the Book club, which all in sum means driving in the pit of hell for five hours.

And then when I get there? Uncle Eff has lived in the attic for 53 years and is not about to be moved so easy. He has two large rooms in the attic, one of which is kept locked and the other which is so filled with junk that we can barely open the door, even on a quiet snoop when we're sure he's out, doing his business at the church or, in the last three years, creeping off to the massage parlour.

So after a good start, all is not well. And I have found out why the house is behaving strangely. I met Mr Pod on the stairs, holding his groin. He claims he's been at home for a month apart from a week in hospital having his innards rearranged. And Pastry announces she's leaving, so she's keeping odd hours, rearranging her furniture and crashing around at three o'clock in the morning.

Dig goes off tomorrow, then I follow. And even worse than being locked in a metal box with the kids, is the thought of meeting Uncle Eff again. I don't think he knows what's about to hit him.

Friday, 15 December 2006

First day back

We wake up, jet lagged, to dark, dark days and long, cold nights. We also come back to a broken pump on the downstairs toilet, a watery carpet from a leak in the bedrooms, mould crawling all over the car's interior, and the gas man, who arrives to change the meter at 9 am. We're all in our pyjamas and Dig has no trousers on.

For some bizarre reason, when the gas man rings the door bell the whole family disgorges into the hall. Now the hall is not big, and we have stacked up boxes along the walls in a sort of way which I like to think of as a rather stylish storage solution, so there's not much room. The kids are pushing each other to see who's there; I'm pushing them out of the way to get to the front door, and Dig, without his trousers on, is pushing everyone. It takes nearly five minutes to get to the door. I try to make light of it and say the postman knows us all quite well now. Dig says the gas man's comments are unnecessary and he should just change the meters.

Changing gas meters doesn't seem as simple as British Gas might make out. The gas man asks to see the oven, which I'm not too happy about, because I've never cleaned it since we got it in 1993 when the sales man said it was self-cleaning, so I assumed it did it at night or at some point when I wasn't looking. I retaliate by asking to see his identity card. This takes him five minutes, looking for it in the van. He's called Asif. He then wants to look at the boiler, which I agree to, because it's under the eaves and there's a low beam that every gas engineer I've ever known has bumped his head on.

While the gas man's here I embark on opening the mail. Apart from several letters from British Gas telling us to get in touch so they can come and change the gas meter, there are the usual bills and junk. There are no letters from debt collection agencies, no letters threatening county court judgments, and no final warnings from Powergen about the £486 they once tried to screw out of us for an energy saving light bulb in the hall that had not been turned on for three months. Everything is going very well. I feel smug and organised, and go off to find a paint stripper to scrape the mould off the car seats.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Coming home

Apologies to all those expecting to receive postcards. I forgot to take your addresses. I left all the scribbled names and roads and postcodes on a pile of papers in the hall, underneath a yogurt drink for Shark and a cheese sandwich for Dig. The addresses and the perishables had disappeared by our return, one month later, so I guess someone in the house couldn't stomach the smell. (Something's going on. The inhabitants of the flats here are immune to the stench of three month old crysanths, so a mouldy cheese sandwich and an exploding Tesco probiotic drink should be nothing.)

We also left the driving licences behind. I blame Dig. He was so busy selling the family pile in Northumberland to the revolting Scrimvers, with five thousand pounds off at the last minute for distress caused, that he abandoned the driving licences on his way out to the taxi. The single piece of documentation required, apart from a credit card, in order to gain access to a well-valeted Vauxhall look-alike for our once-in-a-lifetime family driving holiday on the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. In a box, somewhere in the office, in the middle of England.

Our moment of realisation came over a mouthful of cornflakes in St Kilda, Melbourne, on Day 1. We then spent the next few days working out a plan. Get Aunty Dee to drive five hours down the motorway, break in, find the driving licences, and sort out DHL document express to Melbourne. We had to do a lot of weeping on the phone about how the children would never see a wombat without her.

As it turned out, the children became uncontrollable within three minutes of getting into the hire car. No-one could see out. There were no arm rests to show who owned what bit of the seat. No-one could breathe because we controlled the air conditioning. It was too cold. It was too hot. There were no koalas. There were too many koalas. And no-one could see them. Shark sat in the middle where she could wollop both sisters simultaneously, one on either side. Tiger sat behind the passenger seat, kicking it mostly, and shouting. Squirrel sat behind the driver and wailed. We bring back lots of memories of the three of them fighting in gullies by the roadside and photographs of them scowling under roadsigns 'Mind the Wombat' to show to Aunty Dee.

You may wonder why we didn't just ask Mr Pod or Pastry - the other inhabitants of this glorious house-made-into-flats simply to come downstairs and unlock our flats with the keys which we left hanging in the cupboard on the landing. In actual fact I'd rather not say just right now. Maybe I'll wait a while and see what turns out before I feel I have to confess on that one.